WESLACO, RGV – Rio Grande Valley leaders want state legislators to siphon off $25 million from the Department of Public Safety’s border security funds and use it to promote the region as a tourist destination.

The measure is one of five items listed in the agenda being prepared for RGV Day in Austin. This event takes place Feb. 7 at the state Capitol.

Steve Ahlenius

Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, discussed the “Protect & Promote Us” campaign at a Regional Small Cities Coalition meeting in Weslaco on Thursday evening.

“Everybody is familiar with the debate going on about the $800 million for border security. What we have said is, yes, that is important to the rest of the state but there is an opportunity here, out of that $800 million, for the state to set aside $25 million for promotion by economic development entities, EDCs, chambers of commerce and other entities in the Rio Grande Valley, so they could use that money with a one-to-one matching fund to promote their communities or their economic development,” Ahlenius said.

“Not only does the state want to protect the border, we get that, but it gives us a chance to tell our story.”

Ahlenius distributed literature about RGV Day in Austin to members of the Regional Small Cities Coalition. The literature included the five legislative agenda items. For the one on border relations and image, the document stated:

The Rio Grande Valley (RGV), and its strategic location on the U.S.-Mexico Border, is key to the economic prosperity of Texas. Over 40,000 companies employing over 1,100,000 Texans operate in the export trade and make Texas the No. 1 export state in the nation. Mexico is Texas’ No. 1 trading partner, with $94,500,000,000 worth of merchandise being exported to Mexico in 2015. Over $19,000,000,000 of these exports to Mexico flowed through RGV Points of Entry.

In addition to southbound exports, the RGV is a major hub for visitors and trade coming from Mexico, with over 800,000 trucks, over 5,800,000 pedestrians and over 11,500,000 vehicles crossing into Texas through RGV Points of Entry in 2015. This trade and tourism activity fuels both the retail and hospitality industries in the RGV. In reporting year 2015, the RGV’s total retail sales exceeded $14,600,000,000 and area hotels grossed almost $280,000,000 in receipt. These numbers translated into over $400,000,000 of sales tax and hotel occupancy tax flowing into the state’s coffers.

We agree that safety is important for the State of Texas as much as it is for the RGV, and we appreciate the state’s efforts to make Texans and our region safe. Yet an unintended consequence of these efforts is an inadequate perception that the RGV is a region of elevated crime and insecurity. This inadequate perception in turn discourages investors, tourists and business people to explore the opportunities offered by our region and/or the state of Texas as a whole. Therefore, while we invest in safety, we need to simultaneously invest in supporting business and trade in the RGV as it has a significant impact on the economic prosperity of the state as a whole. You can help us keep Texas prosperous, and keep the RGV prosperous, by investing in the promotion of our region for trade, tourism and economic expansion.

We would like to see a $25,000,000 annual investment of the Texas DPS Border Security Funding for the promotion of our region utilizing:

•    Matching funds for out of state tourism and business promotional activities by RGV non-profits, CVBs and economic development marketing organizations;
•    Familiarization Tours of the RGV for Texas, U.S. and International Media;
•    State Funding for Tourism Oriented Directional Signs for the RGV;
•    State sponsored promotion of the RGV ports of entry for use in importing and exporting products and merchandize;
•    State sponsored promotion of the RGV as a prime nature and eco-tourism destination;
•    State sponsored promotion of the RGV as a year-round active tourism destination.

Interviewed after the Regional Small Cities Coalition, Ahlenius urged as many Valley leaders to attend RGV Day in Austin. He said their presence was especially crucial when it comes to discussion on border security.

“It is one of the top three issues going on. If we are not engaged as a region there will not be anybody up there defending us. Our legislators are working really hard, but when you have 200 people showing that sends a message, and it sends a message as a region. It is really important to be engaged, to tell our story and our side of what is going on,” Ahlenius told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Asked if this was particularly important given all that was said about the border region during the presidential election debate, Ahlenius said; “We have got to be engaged, if we are not engaged we are going to be taken apart.”

Mark Sanchez

One of the members of the Regional Small Cities Coalition is Mark Sanchez, mayor of Combes. Sanchez said he made a suggestion at a previous coalition meeting to have a TV commercial shot to promote the Valley using the latest drone technology.

“We meet on South Padre Island with Senator Eddie Lucio and we were kicking around ideas on how to promote the Valley. Senator Lucio said he would be meeting with folks in Dallas that he thought could help,” Sanchez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“My idea was to make a TV commercial with a drone, to take video of our windmill farms to the north, our agriculture, our ports of entry, our fine hospitals, our colleges, our banking and our schools. Such a commercial would be a great way to put our message out, as a counter to Border Wars. The people in Iowa and Indiana and Illinois, they get to see Border Wars on cable TV, but where is the positive image of the Valley? If we are not going to talk good about us, who is going to talk good about us?”

The Small Cities Coalition agreed to join RGV Day in Austin. Other participants include: City of Edinburg, City of McAllen, City of Harlingen, City of Weslaco, Starr County Industrial Foundation, Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, McAllen Chamber of Commerce, Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, McAllen Convention & Visitors Bureau, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, Mission Economic Development Corporation, McAllen Economic Development Corporation, Harlingen Economic Development Corporation, Weslaco Economic Development Corporation, Pharr Economic Development Corporation, McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, Anzalduas International Bridge, McAllen Public Utilities Board, Port of Brownsville, Rio Grande Valley Partnership, Rio South Texas Economic Council, South Texas College, IBC Bank, BBVA Compass Bank, Texas A&M University, UT-Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV Foundation, Food Bank RGV, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, The Warren Group Architects, Shephard Walton King Insurance, and The Monitor.

Ahlenius said more entities will be signing up as sponsors in the coming days. For more information on sponsorship, contact Gerry Garcia at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce – 956-682-2871 or [email protected].